Sunday, April 26, 2009

Footloose in Barcelona – 1. Some musings on tourists vs. travelers

After Frankfurt and Vienna, Barcelona was a sensory orgy. The whole feeling was one of animation.

Humor, architecture, football, anger, bullfight, protest against the bullfight, the sexuality in the policewomen - everything seemed to have an edge to it. Not razor sharp but still palpable - as if the denizens were perpetually just a step away from some very personal tipping point, and at the same time still quite comfortable with the idea of gently pushing the envelope.

The people were more casual, both in attitude and attire. Language was a problem because English was not as easily understood as in the DACH (Germany, Austria and Switzerland). The weather was glorious and I had just a single day of meetings to get over with before three days of carefree loafing…

Well now, you know, I hate to think of myself as a tourist.

“Tourist” implies a certain disconnect. Like humans in a zoo. I mean humans visiting a zoo. They stand at a distance and gawk. They seldom have even a rudimentary understanding of the “specimens” they are gawking at.

In the first chapter (Why Look At Animals?) of his incredibly dense “About Looking”, John Berger gives his take on how animals in zoos are basically marginalized props designed to cater to an abstruse, perverse need of the human visitors to relate to certain, very personal but distorted interpretations of an already misrepresented reality.

Similarly, I feel that tourists too chase some personal chimera that they wish existed. In the heat of this shallow chase, tourists invariably render the locals into marginalized props – bit actors in an enormous set piece. A tourist feels no need to understand. For the tourist, the travel is a diversion. It’s an activity or an experience that was bought and paid for, with little or no obligation on his or her part to participate in the reality on the other side of the invisible cage.

A traveler on the other hand, weaves his existence slowly and seamlessly through the fabric of the land that he travels in. Like a single, short, peripheral but harmonious thread in a vast tapestry. The traveler becomes, for a moment, a part of the “reality” of the space that he shares with the natives.

And truly great travelers leave at least a little something of value behind while taking a personal treasure with them as they move on.

Unfortunately, I suspect that these days I am more often tourist than traveler. But what the fuck, with the dollar rate being what it is, true travel is a pipe dream for me anyway.

Barcelona, allelujah, was perfect for me, the tourist.

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